Writing female characters is no different than writing male characters.
In fact, writing a character of any physical characteristic, or external trait–such as profession, economic wealth, etc. is no different than writing any other character.
When folks get hung up on “how to write a specific type of character” they’re almost always really asking “how do I cater to a specific demographic, without offending people with stereotypes.” (More on this later.)
While technically you can swap in either gender (or any external aspect) for this article, we’ll stick with female because I see the question a lot and I’ll drop a few specific tips on it in a second. First, let me give you the description to a properly developed, strong female character;
“Jane Racer is a soldier suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, experiencing difficulty adjusting to normal life. Prone to violence because of the torture she suffered at the hands of North Vietnamese soldiers in Vietnam. Jane is willing to do anything to save her friends and the people she cares about from any danger. Due to her violent nature, regular people tend to fear her. Jane Racer has a muscular physique due to her time in the military and her intense training regimen. She has a high amount of strength and stamina. Racer is an expert in surviving in dense forests against a large number of enemies due to her experiences in the Vietnam War. She is an expert in guerrilla tactics, weapons, and mixed martial arts.”
If the above description sounds familiar, it’s because I basically grabbed wikipedia’s description of John Rambo and simply changed the name to Jane Racer. Why would I resort to such tomfoolery?
To simply illustrate the point, who’s to say that this female character couldn’t (or shouldn’t) exist?
To think a certain gender (profession, race, etc.) has to be written a certain way, is the mark of an amateur writer.
If a story world is created with honesty, objectivity and passion, and a character is developed within this world in an engaging and entertaining manner, who’s to say it isn’t “correct”? That’s right… nobody.
This concept of writing a type of character correctly crosses over into the realm of “write what you know” and “your personal definition of success for your writing.” Two topics I cover in the diversity article and Storycraft for Comics respectively.
Back on point.
Ok Nick, so you’re saying writing a boy is the same process as writing a girl. Yes, solid character fundamentals don’t have anything to do with gender. Of course, gender can play an important role in who the character is, it can be a focal point, directing personality traits and shaping the psyche of the character—but you don’t approach writing the character differently based on these traits.
Solid primary characters should have a complete arc. But you don’t make a female character’s arc about “love” because she’s female, any more than you would make an arc about “impressing his father” cause the character’s male.
It’s the characters themselves relative to the story world that define them, not any kind of preconceived notion.
Writing to a Demographic
When you honestly and objectively recognize that you’re trying to write to a specific demographic, things can change dramatically. This is the point where you’re not saying “hmm, how do I write a female character” but rather “how do I write a female character that readers will find… empowering” or maybe “inspiring”, “realistic”… or any other preconceived quality.
In this approach, you’re switching focus away from the character’s organic development in your story world and toward, “audience expectations”–more concerned with reader interpretation, rather than story mechanics. This change in priorities is a really important distinction to understand.
Of course, the immediate question that comes to mind should you do this?
Personal question, only the individual writer can answer…
but if you ask me, sure, why not?
If you want to write to a specific audience. Go for it.
Be aware that when you try and write to a demographic, you need to jump two hurdles. First, in knowing what the demographic expects and wants… Second, being able to execute on that perceived need and deliver.
Whether or not you’re able to deliver to audience expectations and approval can be trickier than you realize.
As I said at the beginning of the article, most folks who ask the question “how do I write a female protagonist” are really asking how should they write the character for a specific audience. In comic land, for less experienced writers, this often translates to, “I’m a guy and write a lot of guy fiction, how do I write female characters female readers will relate to.”
Captain obvious said, if you’re going to write for a demo, KNOW WHO THEY ARE.
If you search the web looking for tips on writing female characters you’ll find tons of scrub-a-bub writing advice columns spewing out checklists of details, secret tips guaranteed to create an engaging female lead. In reality, whether the advice columnist knows it or not, these checklists are simply trying to steer your character’s development to their perceived generic female audience.
To me this is losing approach.
Why? Cause I know a lotta sci-fi, fantasy and horror ladies that dig totally different stuff than Harry Potter fans, who in turn dig totally different stuff that Sex in the City fans. (Cultural norms aren’t what they used to be and audiences are generally more complex than ever before.)
Someone assuming their demographic audience is yours, is dangerous ice to play on.
It’s far easier to write for yourself in a world you passionately, objectively and honestly believe in, but if you’re gonna write for a demo.
Know the demographic you’re writing for.
As a side note, if you’re interested in financial success, you may want to research your target audience before you start catering to them. This crosses over into the actual business aspect writing (too complex to go into here, check the business section of articles).
Ok, now that I’ve hopefully somewhat explained why you shouldn’t get hung up with how to write anybody, but instead write from the heart and write for who you want to write for…
Let’s break down some tips for writing female characters. <I know I’m contradicting myself, stay with me.>
#1) Your female protagonist needs to fit realistically in the story world.
You female protagonist must have plausibility and coherent causality within your story. (this last bit in blue is key.)
This means your lawyer girl character doesn’t need to act like a lawyer does in our world, she needs to act like a lawyer character in your story world. If all the lawyers are super smart in your story world, but your female lead is as dumb as a bag of rocks, she’s going to feel artificial, out of place and likely, disengage the reader. (Of course, unless that’s the actual premise of your story.)
Her actions need to be believable and inevitable (based on cause and effect of everything going on in the story). If she’s constantly breaking the believability and expectations the reader has of the reality you’ve defined, she simply, won’t work.
Humans are complex creatures. A simple character is likely to break rule 1. Simple character tend to NOT hold up well over time (the course of a story)–when challenged by the numerous obstacles of a genuine story, they either fall flat, or keep trying to stuff a square peg in a round hole.
Make sure your female protagonist has a complete character arc and a distinct flaw, affecting herself and those around her, relative to the Master Theme of the story (all covered in Storycraft, fyi).
#3) Avoid Sexual Objectification.
This is a lead in from rule #2, as sexual objectification is really a classification of a simplified, hollow character.
Folks will argue this one, but I’m generally in the boat of celebrating and admiring sexuality (though admittedly, I may be bias for growing up in a more liberal home, in NYC). It is a complete misnomer that one can’t be sexually expressive without being sexually objectified.
Sexual objectification occurs when there is nothing else to the character BUT their sexuality. They’re a one trick pony.
She is there only for visual eye candy. If your character could bring engagement and entertainment to the reader while in a space suit, Eskimo duds, or in other conditions where their sexuality is removed from the equation, then their sexuality is merely one side in a multi-faceted expression, and anyone complaining about it, probably doesn’t like sexual expression in any form.
#4) Avoid Predictability through Stereotypes
We’re not talking about offensive stereotypes here, of course those have no place in good writing.
When we say stereotypes, we’re really talking about tropes (and even character archetypes)–a symbolic possibly cliche expression of a character. The bank robber swearing it will be her last job. The hooker in it just long enough to get enough money for a fresh start. The junkie who isn’t a addict. Ok, these are low-hanging fruit, but you get the picture.
Anyone who says tropes are bad news, likely doesn’t understand how to use them. They pack a lot of power in a little punch. The key to using them effectively in a female character is to turn them on their head, so the reader gets symbolic familiarity with them, BUT is surprised by their use.
Or more importantly;
Predictable stereotypes kill. Avoid them at all costs.
#5) Capable Characters
Ineptness is weakness and weak characters are generally not engaging.
The protagonist of story almost always gets help from an ally to conquer the climax, but the help she gets doesn’t resolve the conflict for them… it offers them the opportunity to reach success themselves.
As such, make sure your female character isn’t relying on someone else to complete her arc, defeat the MAF, break through the climax and resolve the story.
Capable characters engage readers.
If you go back and take another look at the 5 tips to a female protagonist, you’ll notice that these could just as easily apply to a male character, genderless character, alien character…whatever… and that’s the point.
Solid, engaging characters don’t rely on their pee-pee or vajayjay… the color of their skin, nation of birth, or any other physical, social, cultural aspect.
They depend on their underlying structural mechanics relative to the story world in which they live.
They depend on the deep undercurrents of the human condition–focus on this when you developing your characters, and you won’t ever need to ask, “how do I write ‘this kind of character'” ever again. ▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.